Ruweished (Jordan), March 23 (Reuters): The Iraqi driver was so scared travelling the desert road to Jordan after a night of heavy US bombing on Baghdad that he regularly put his hands out of the window to dry his sweating palms.
His passengers, who recounted their tale today, were South African “human shields” fleeing war in Iraq.
They said they too were terrified yesterday as they passed charred vehicles, burning buildings and a bombed fuel station on the highway to the Jordanian border. The only traffic they saw was a few dozen private Iraqi vehicles.
The group made no mention of US forces, which seized two airfields near the road in Iraq’s western desert on Friday.
The eight South Africans said most of them had spent only two nights in Baghdad, where their hotel shook with each bomb blast, before deciding their presence would not stop the war.
“If the bombing goes on, you are no more a human shield, you are going to commit suicide,” said 45-year-old Mohammad Suleiman, speaking at a camp for those fleeing the conflict.
Suleiman said he and the others had gone to Iraq in solidarity with the Iraqi people. He had hoped at the last minute that war would be averted because of international opposition. But after living through fearsome US bombardments of the Iraqi capital he decided to leave swiftly.
He said five of his group wanted to stay in Jordan to help aid workers tending those fleeing the war. Two camps have been erected near the Iraqi border, one for Iraqis and another for other nationalities, like the group of South Africans.
Aid workers said as many as 700 people, mainly Sudanese, had arrived in Jordan in recent days but almost no Iraqis. One aid official said an Iraqi man had reached the border, as well as some Palestinians with Iraqi travel documents.
Most of the third-country nationals have already left or were expected to start travelling home later on Sunday, leaving less than 200 people in the transit camp, the aid workers said.
The South Africans said officials at the Iraqi border post had refused to let their Iraqi driver cross into Jordan.
“We suggested why didn’t he come across the border, but the Iraqis wouldn’t let him,” said Farouk Suliman, a 48-year-old South African accountant.
He said the group had seen buildings still burning near the desert road, suggesting recent air strikes.
They had also seen a destroyed fuel station and a damaged bridge on the 550-km (340-mile) highway between Baghdad and the border.
Suliman said their driver planned to stay overnight in the desert before returning by day today to Baghdad.
A Jordanian taxi driver was killed on Thursday when US missiles hit a building outside Baghdad where he had stopped to make a telephone call, his colleagues said.
Aid workers, some of whom operate in the no man’s land between the Iraqi and Jordanian border posts, said more traffic was heading into Iraq than the other way. One said around 200 Iraqis had left Jordan on yesterday.
“The ‘refugee flood’ is in the wrong direction, if I can put it like that. People are going back into Iraq, they are not coming out,” the aid worker said.
The camp that has been set up for Iraqis is capable of handling about 10,000 people in the initial phase, but can be expanded quickly. Currently, the rows of tents stand empty.
Jordan expelled five Iraqi diplomats today on security grounds in the first such move by an Arab country following a recent request from the US.
State news agency Petra said the diplomats were asked to leave for security reasons after they undertook activities “incompatible to their status of diplomats”.
“The diplomats were asked to leave by the Jordanian foreign ministry within 24 hours,” Iraqi embassy spokesman Jawad al-Ali said.